Mobile Solutions or Stagnant Problems?

Probably the only firm conclusion that emerged from the Global Assets Project and Open Technology Initiative's (OTI) standing-room only February 9th event, “Mobile Disconnect: Can Mobile Solutions Really Combat Poverty?” was that expert opinion is divided. It was generally agreed that mobile connectivity is a critical infrastructure of the information age and, as the Arab Spring has exemplified, a solid foundation for a more empowered, connected, and inclusive society. However, the potential of mobile technologies to revolutionize international development was met by cautious optimism by some and outright skepticism by others.

On the bullish side of the coin were Maura O’Neill, Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Counselor to the Administrator at USAID, and Michael Tarazi, Senior Policy Specialist at CGAP. O’Neill insisted that although we are only at “mobiles for development 1.0,” these technologies will be instrumental to efforts to eradicate poverty. At the same time, she noted issues that needed to be addressed such as adoption rates, access, affordability and functionality. One example she cited was that of a pilot in Afghanistan, by which switching to mobile payments of police officers led a 30% increase in salaries simply by cutting down on corruption.

Tarazi followed with similar optimism, particularly with respect to mobile phones potential to increase financial inclusion. “1.2 to 1.7 billion…customers have mobile phones but do not have bank accounts” have access to mobile phones but not a bank account,” he pointed out, and branchless banking has proven significantly cheaper than the other options in developing countries. In addition, although its success has not been replicated, over half of the adult population in Kenya are users of the mobile money platform M-PESA.

By far the most skeptical on the panel was Kentaro Toyama, Researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. In the 60s, Toyama pointed out, people falsely thought that television was going to change the face of education, and similar enthusiasm accompanied the advent of radio and film. At the same time, although the U.S. is arguably the most technologically advanced country in the world, it has made no significant dent in its own poverty rate over the past 30 years.

Co-founder and Editor of MobileActive Katrin Verclas echoed Toyama’s themes by urging development practitioners to get to the end of the “hype cycle” as soon as possible so that we could think more constructively about the issues at hand. Most importantly, she argued, we need to be paying much more attention to privacy concerns of the populations we aim to serve, as we are currently sorely under-appreciative of the liberties we take with others' digital confidentiality.

Although our lively debate did not provide any clear takeaways as to how mobile phones will connect with efforts to eradicate global poverty, the importance of the issue was lost on no one in the room. In the words of mdoerator Sascha Meinrath, director of OTI, "How we communicate is absolutely fundamental to the future of civilization."


Vishnu Sridharan